2001-10-27 / Letters

SRO Controversy Grows

SRO Controversy Grows

Dear Editor;

A big scandal involving Single Room Occupancy hotels is about to bust wide open in Rockaway, a scandal that will throw a lot of smug people for a loop. It’s not a scandal involving alleged "slumlords" or "welfare scum," as some would have you believe; it’s a scandal involving the very establishment that has been unfairly harassing the hard-working tenants and owners of SROs for the past several years.

This week, the first of many federal lawsuits has been filed against the City of New York and the community leaders who spearheaded a campaign of discrimination against the SROs. And while it is a pity that it had to take legal action to wake up the community to the fact that they have been deceived about the SROs, the greater pity is that the scandal did not have to happen in the first place.

For those of you who have been fed on propaganda only, here are some facts. SROs have been a part of Rockaway’s history for over a hundred and fifty years, and during that time, they didn’t attract much attention. About five years ago, there was a sudden uproar in the community when it was alleged that all the ills of the area were the fault of the "those people" who lived in the SROs. Rumors about the SROs being full of prostitutes, drug dealers, and pit bulls overshadowed the reality that they were full of working-class people who had been living there trouble-free for years.

The Building Commissioner, James Leonard, and the President of Community Board 14, Jonathan Gaska, rolled out the bandwagon and invited community leaders to jump aboard. Lew Simon, ever the first to leap without looking, climbed on, as did Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer, and Councilman Al Stabile. Even Congressman Anthony Weiner came close enough to the bandwagon to be in a few photo-ops.

A Task Force on SROs was formed and its mission was to surround the homes of long-time Rockaway residents and forcibly evict the residents, giving them only minutes to pack up their lives and get out. It didn’t matter that the Building Commissioner, who has since been indicted along with six of his henchmen, had signed off on false violations and illegal fines; what mattered was that the buildings be boarded up and made into eye sores as quickly as possible.

It didn’t matter that less than ten years ago the zoning laws were changed to prevent SROs from being knocked down and made into two-family homes; what mattered was that the residents be shipped off to $150 a night hotels at the taxpayer’s expense for months at a time.

Funny, but ever since James Leonard was indicted, the megaphones have been eerily silent. Oh sure, there have been a few whimpers from Chris George and Lew Simon, the losers of the Democratic Primary for City Council, but the whimpers fell on deaf ears. With no facts and figures to make their case and no crooked city officials to create phony violations and inflated fines, their attempts to get the anti-SRO bandwagon going again derailed and, unfortunately for them, derailed their campaigns.

Were they even aware that the violations were fraudulent? Did they know that closing the SROs exploited innocent people in order to fill emergency housing hotels with $150 a night residents? In all likelihood, they probably didn’t because their prejudices against the SRO landlords and tenants prevented them from looking hard enough at the issue to see they were being used.

It’s disappointing that no one on the bandwagon asked some simple questions: How can it be right to surround a building at ten o’clock at night with an entourage of city agencies and force your neighbors to gather all their earthly possessions, pile into a bus, and be hauled away to a strange neighborhood with absolutely no warning? How can it be right to destroy the livelihood of family after family of landlords who invest physically, emotionally, and financially in operating legitimate dwellings for people who need a place to live?

Maybe now that the scandal is coming to light, we might get some answers as to why legally operated hotels, full of law-abiding citizens, could have been made the targets of such obvious discrimination. Who and what was the real motivation behind the out of control bandwagon?

If we want to learn a lesson from the mistakes that led to these federal lawsuits, we have to reevaluate our opinion of the SROs. After all, "those people" the political hacks were so anxious to evict, have the same rights as the people on the bandwagon.




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